Can a 16-year-old really consent to sleeping with someone in their 30s?

Consent can be withdrawn at any time before or during sexual activity. Consenting to sexual activity on one occasion doesn’t mean you consent to it on another, regardless of your relationship status. However, in rape culture – where victims are routinely blamed for the sexual violence enacted against them – many people believe that if a person has consented to a certain level of activity with another, whether it’s going on a date, kissing, or engaging in foreplay, they have automatically consented to sex. This makes it harder for victims to be taken seriously and believed.

What is the legal age of consent in the UK?

In the UK, the legal age of consent for sexual activity – including penetrative sex, oral sex and mutual masturbation – is 16 years old. This is the same for all sexualities. However, it’s illegal for over-18s in positions of trust (such as teachers) to engage in any sexual activity with someone in their care (such as their students) – even if they are 16 or over.

It’s illegal for under-16s to have sex with one another – even if they are ‘consenting’ – but the law is mainly used to protect under-16s from sexual abuse at the hands of adults.

What can you legally consent to at age 16?

At 16, you can legally have consensual sex with another person (of any gender) if your partner is also over 16. However, it is illegal to take an explicit picture yourself and send it to anyone at this age. It doesn’t matter if you send it to someone under 18, or if you ‘consent’ to the image being shared, or if you only share it with a partner. It’s still considered child pornography.

What’s the rationale for this distinction? Sophie Campbell-Adams, a solicitor at Britton and Time solicitors, tells GLAMOUR that it’s about “protecting minors from harm and exploitation.” The non-consensual distribution of explicit images is associated with “coercion, extortion, and exploitation”, which are existing criminal offences. While 16-year-olds are legally deemed to have the capacity to make informed decisions about sexual relationships (thanks, in part due to sex education), they may not “fully comprehend the dangers associated with explicit images.”

Campbell-Adams continues, “There are many examples of individuals sending photos to their partner whilst in a relationship and these being leaked to social media or sent to family and friends.

“The classification of explicit pictures involving individuals under the age of 18 as child pornography is designed to protect those who are not legally able to provide consent or understand the ramifications of these images being shared. It is for this reason that there are still strict restrictions in place with regard to explicit images.”

Should the age of consent be raised?

Did you know that the age of consent in the UK used to be just 12 years old? The age of consent is often considered a fraught legal issue. While some have voiced concern over teenagers potentially being criminalised for having consensual sex with each other, others worry that a low age of consent fails to protect teenagers from abusive relationships with much older adults.


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